Them and us: Divided by a common language

Hello birdies, hello sky... hello, what’s that small metal container about five feet from the ground, attached to the shaft of a lamppost behind a major high street store?

As I investigate, I am reminded once again that the British and the Americans are two nations divided by a common language because the receptacle bears the legend “butts here”.

Judging by the discoloration and ash in the vicinity, it has been provided for cigarette ends, disposal thereof.

But any passing citizen of the USA is going to ponder the message, as “butt” is most commonly used to describe the backside, buttocks, bum, bottom, derriere, rear (see also Roget’s Thesaurus).

Simply to get an American butt halfway up a lamppost would require some sort of gymnastic talent but to then push it into the tiny aperture provided would be beyond even the size zeros of New York’s Fifth Avenue.


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Even the tiniest of Hollywood’s teeny actresses would not get their scrawny backsides into the hole provided, even if they had an action movie hunk to give them a leg up.

‘Butts here’ is a pleasing reminder that proper English is sometimes still used on these islands rather than the hybrids and mis-spellings that are inexorably creeping into our language from abroad.

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There’s another one, see. A broad in the States is a woman, in the UK it requires a passport.

The French have small pockets of resistance when it comes to Franglish, eg le weekend, and there is an occasional cross-Channel skirmish (or squirmish as the fragrant also-ran and former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin prefers) over the use of one another’s language.

The British are not so picky. We are happy to go with d�j� vu, as I think I may have mentioned before... or have I?

But I do object to having our own billions pounds of debt converted into American billions. Our billions are so much bigger and more impressive. The British billion was one of the only things we had that was actually bigger than the American equivalent.

We had a great white shrimp in New York that was the size of Jaws.

A billion in the USA is a mere 1,000 million whereas the old-fashioned British sum is one million million.

Another of the rare smaller things is dress sizes. Here I am 16, there I am a 12 and this, peversely, makes me very happy even though I am, in fact, exactly the same size both sides of the pond.

But would I rather be a size 16 English billionaire or a size 12 American billionaire?

No contest, I’ll take the smaller size.

Website about.com has a page devoted to Standard American English Tips (not as in filter tips as in butts)

It says: “To use English effectively, you need to understand the culture in which it is spoken,” and goes on to give some “important tips” to remember when speaking English in the United States.

Among them:

n Americans have difficulties understanding foreign accents: Many Americans are not used to foreign accents.

n Speak about location: Americans love to talk about location.

n Talk about work: Americans commonly ask “What do you do?”. It’s not considered impolite (as in some countries).

n Talk about sports: Americans love sports! However, they love American sports. When speaking about football, most Americans understand ‘American Football’, not soccer.

n Always shake hands: Americans shake hands when greeting each other. This is true for both men and women. Other forms of greeting such as kissing on the cheeks, etc., are generally not appreciated.

n Don’t hold hands: Same sex friends do not usually hold hands or put their arms around each other in public in the United States.

I have devised a sample introductory statement, shown here with associated body language in brackets.

Brit: “Hi, (offer hand to shake) call me Lynne. Where are you from, what do you do. Hey, football (aim friendly punch at shoulder but don’t land it).”

For our cousins across the water, here is similar guidance for around these parts.

n We have difficulties understanding accents but pretend we don’t.

n Talk about weather: we all love to talk about the weather.

n Don’t talk about work unless you’re getting in a round*.

n Only talk about sport if you have the faintest inkling about association football (soccer). Bandying the word “Beckham” around is not sufficient proof of credentials.

n You can shake hands with us but it may mean you have entered into a binding contract.

n Don’t hold hands or put your arm round a Brit until you are on first name terms.

A simple introductory statement might go like this:

American: “(speaking from a respectable distance) Hi. Raining again, I see. Can I buy you a jar*? The wind is from the west so it’s not as cold, is it? Might clear up later with a bit of luck... (indicates two-thirds-full glass) Do you want a half* in there? Oh, another pint*.... Okay...”

First name terms will follow shortly. Now you can hold hands.

* Terms associated with social drinking.

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